Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Interview with Sidney Lumet

Vet filmmaker Sidney Lumet directs this absorbing suspense thriller about a family facing the worst enemy–itself.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, an overextended broker who lures his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into a larcenous scheme: the pair plans to rob a suburban jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target. The problem is, the storeowners are Andy and Hank’s actual mom and pop and, when the seemingly perfect crime goes awry, the damage lands right at their doorstep. Marisa Tomei plays Hoffman’s trophy wife, who is having a clandestine affair with Hawke, and the stellar cast also includes Albert Finney as the family patriarch who pursues justice at all costs, completely unaware that the culprits he is hunting are his own sons.

At the age of 83, and making his 45th film, Sidney Lumet is perhaps even more vital, more engaging, and more engaged than he was in the early days of his career. Known as the actor’s director, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award in 2005 in recognition of his “brilliant services” to performers, screenwriters, and the art of the motion picture. As his long and distinguished filmography suggests, Lumet has always been intrigued by stories about families in unusual or distressed situations (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), and capers gone awry (“The Anderson Tapes”).

Enchanted by the Script

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” incorporates both these themes and is very much in the tradition of his previous works. “I read the script and I was enchanted,” Lumet recalls. “I thought it was a wonderful story. There’s nothing like good melodrama, and the continual surprises in the script just bowled me over.”

Melodrama as Storytelling

Lumet’s appreciation for melodrama is unique. The genre could be perceived as old-fashioned and exaggerated at a time when “reality” is an important (and highly marketable) concept. But Lumet understands that melodrama is a classic form of storytelling. “Melodrama has very wide range,” he explains. “The story asks the viewer to suspend disbelief and to accept more and more outrageous circumstances and behavior. In a really remarkable melodrama, the events of the story unfold quickly and without warning. Time is short and the pressure cooker is really cooking. There is no time to give the character a background or to deal with his past. The storytelling is fast, lean, and aggressive. Anything that does not advance the story is unimportant.” Even writer Kelly Masterson’s title, which is taken from an old Irish toast which says ‘May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead,’ suggests urgency and potential consequences for catastrophe.”

“In most dramas,” Lumet continues, “the story has to come out of the characters: this is such-and-such kind of person, and therefore this is the inevitable result. In a melodrama, it’s the exact reverse. The characters have to adjust to the demands of the story and justify their actions.”

Hannibal Lecter Changed Everything

Lumet says that characters in melodramas are rarely familiar or heroic types. They can be unsympathetic, or even downright despicable. But that does not prevent audiences from responding to them. “Hannibal Lecter changed everything,” he observes. “Who of us has known someone who eats other people How is it possible that a character says, ‘I’m having someone for dinner,’ and the audience roars with laughter, knowing that he’s going to eat them.”

Similarly, there are no conventional heroes in the new film. Circumstances bring out the worst in each member of the family. At virtually every opportunity, they make the worst possible choices and act in ways that surprise and horrify even themselves. It is the actors challenge to make this unlikable behavior, however extreme, believable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

In thinking about a cast to inhabit this provocative story, Lumet placed Philip Seymour Hoffman at the top of his list. “I think Philip is one of the best actors in America today,” he says. Recognizing Hoffman’s incredible breadth of talent, Lumet decided against the obvious choice of casting him in the role of Hank, the weaker brother. Instead, Lumet played against type and cast Ethan Hawke as Hank and Hoffman as Andy, the misguided mastermind of the crime. These consummate actors could have played either role and done it well. But Lumet wanted to introduce an element of surprise to his melodrama.

Reuniting With Albert Finney

Lumet was impressed by all of his cast members and was confidant they would convince the audience to suspend disbelief and surrender to the extreme, almost operatic world of the story. “The first day of rehearsal was enormously exciting because I had never worked with any of the people before, except Albert Finney on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ many years ago. I’d never worked with Marisa Tomei, or Ethan Hawke, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but immediately it was apparent that the level of talent was very high.” He found Marisa Tomei to be “an enchanting actress. There are no two takes that are alike with her and all of them are real,” he praises.

Lumet was also happy to reunite with Albert Finney. “Working with Albert again after all this time was so moving to both of us,” he says. “Even then, when he was at the height of his popularity, the sex object of the world, he was playing a man 20 years older than himself, so hidden behind makeup and hair that you wouldn’t have recognized him.”

Lumet’s vision for his cast extended to the film’s supporting players and extras. Ethan Hawke points out that the finest stage actors in the world (which, in this case, includes Oscar-nominee Rosemary Harris and Tony award-winner Brian F. O’Byrne) are eager to work with Lumet, even for a couple of days. “One of the great things about working with him is that you end up acting with these people every day,” he says.

Lumet’s actors also talk about his ability to focus their attention and sharpen their motivation. In private moments, often delivered with great affection, “He grabs your shoulder, your face, your hand. He wants his connection close and wants you to know that he’s on your side,” says Hoffman. “He doesn’t play the withholding father type. He’s direct, he’s honest, and he’s supportive.”

Lumet has great respect for the acting process. Much like the theater, all of his films begin with extended rehearsals. It is an intense two-week process, from read-through to walk-through, including discussions and blocking on taped sets. The actors start at the beginning and go all the way through the entire film, just like a play. They work with furniture and props, and it is a learning process for everyone. Rehearsal is sacred to Lumet and his actors and he refuses to be interrupted. “The nice thing about a long rehearsal process was that we got to know all our key collaborators before we arrived on the set,” says Ethan Hawke. “We had an opportunity to make many of the creative decisions before we started filming.” Preparation is the key to Lumets famously smooth and efficient productions.

Shooting in New York

“Before the Devil” was shot during the summer of 2006. Filming began in New York City and moved to Bayside, Queens, White Plains, Yonkers and other locations in and around Manhattan, before settling at Hell Gate Studios in Astoria, Queens for the second half of principal photography. Lumet’s crews are always impressed by the clarity with which he makes decisions and the speed at which he shoots. One grip recalls that Lumet asked for his camera and lights to be installed in the exact spots he’d originally chosen weeks before on a location scout, when, unbeknownst to their director, assistants had placed tiny marks on the ground.

Three-time Academy Award-winning sound mixer Chris Newman first worked with Lumet on the 1983 movie “Daniel,” a 1950s period piece starring Timothy Hutton. He remembers that Lumet shot a six-camera set up with 10,000 extras, moved the company, dressed 3,000 extras for the next scene, and shot it with three cameras, all before lunch. This is standard operating procedure for Sidney Lumet.

Electric Tempo

“Everyone is amazed at how fast Sidney moves. It creates a tempo on the set that is electric,” explains Ethan Hawke. It amps up everybody’s nerves, particularly the performers. I like it. It takes a couple of days to get used to it. But, eventually, you know that if you have three takes in this movie, something’s wrong.”

Phillip Seymour Hoffman had no trouble adjusting to Lumet’s pace. “Once you understand his rhythm, you’re in it,” he says. “It doesn’t seem crazy; it doesn’t seem too fast. Somehow, you never feel rushed. You know that when you’re here, you’re going to shoot.” Albert Finney adds, “I worked with him 32 years ago. He shoots just as fast now as he did then. He’s still the same.”

Lumet’s turbo-charged production necessitated 24 hour-a-day construction crews to keep up with the rapid set changes. Production designer Chris Nowak designed interior sets for the jewelry store, Andy’s office, and apartments for Andy, Hank, his ex-wife and daughter, and Bobby, the thief whose actions set the plot in motion. The largest set was Mooney’s Pub, the upscale restaurant and bar where a number of important scenes take place. “Before the Devil” was shot by Ron Fortunato, who also worked with Lumet on “Find Me Guilty,” “Strip Search,” and multiple episodes of “100 Centre Street.”

Lumet’s film is knowingly misanthropic. “You can see this is a disconnected clan and because of that disconnection, these brothers feel that they can get away with this terrible crime,” says Hoffman. “What will it matter Their parents are not going to care. The insurance will take care of it. They won’t be hurt–until their not-so-carefully laid plans fall apart. For all its craziness and intensity, this story is actually very believable. From what I read in the news and witness in the world, there are crazy families everywhere, pitting brother against brother, and father against son. Tragic, but it happens a lot.”

The timeless story is told in slivers of chronology, with constantly shifting perspectives. In essence, the audience learns about the characters as they make discoveries about each other and themselves. Andy and Hank want comfortable lives. Hank’s behind on his child support. He can barely make the payments on his daughter’s schooling. Andy covets more and more material things, hoping they will enhance his flailing relationship with his wife. Like everyone else in our debt-driven society, they want to be free of their worries about money. These are normal desires, yet the choices the characters make to achieve these goals are anything but normal.

Their initial aberration leads to a shattering and uncontrollable series of events. With his signature style Sidney Lumet sets the “perfect crime” into motion, and invites us to watch as it is foiled by human frailty and imperfection. There is no way to reverse that first terrible step once it is taken. “It’s like the turning of a page,” observes Albert Finney. “Everything can change in a second. In life (and in melodrama), the only thing we don’t know is what’s going to happen next.”